Comics teach kids?

From Batman to Buddha, comics help foster the love of learning

Comic books and their “cousins” graphic novels are turning out to be invaluable teaching aids in a Wappingers Falls classroom. Why?  “Both can be a big help in encouraging kids to read more,” says teacher John Shekitka, who teaches 9th and 10th-grade social studies at Roy C. Ketchum Senior High School in Wappingers Falls.  

How it began in the classroom

“As part of my graduate program at Bard College,” Shetkikta explains. “One of the questions was ‘how to support literacy in the classrooms?’ The question of graphic novels came up and that year (09-10) one of my side questions, aside from teaching and lesson planning, was ‘what graphic novels give us authentic portrayals of historical events?’ Shetkitka used a selection from “Safe Area Gorazde,” a journalistic graphic novel by Joe Sacco to teach about the Bosnian War.

The thing about graphic novels, he says, is that they allow you to see history as being about people, more than just dates and events. You get to talk about human motivations. Why would someone fight in the Bosnian War for example? Maybe that doesn't make sense to a student, or even us as an outsider until you see how a conflict can have real impact on the lives of people in a community.

Why comic books are a big draw for kids

First, he believes, the creative illustrations attract kids’ interest. Then the unique stories keep them reading. Some are fantasies with universal themes like loneliness and courage, such as “The Last Unicorn” by Peter S. Beagle, while others deal with realistic topics like bullying in “Bus Ride Bully” by Cari M. Meister and Remy Simard.

While classic comics, such as superheroes like Batman and Spiderman are still a hit, the audience for graphic novels continues to grow. Think of a graphic novel as a hybrid between a comic and a “regular” book. Graphic novels tell a story with words and illustrations, usually hand-drawn, sometimes in an experimental manner or representing an artist’s distinctive style.

Graphic novels from a librarian’s perspective

Graphic novels are popular, too, in many school libraries, says Mary Beth Rossetti, librarian at Ketchum. “They’re very effective teaching tools,” she says. “It requires visual literacy to read them; the text and illustration components work hand-in-hand. And kids today are visual learners. They’re exposed to media, starting at a very young age, so they’re naturally drawn to these books.”

Rossetti says parents shouldn’t worry that it might be a waste of time if kids read comics. “I tend to believe that any reading is a positive thing,” she says, adding that some comics do have educational themes. But it’s important to remember that kids occasionally want to kick back and just enjoy a story, she notes. “They don’t always have to ‘read to level’ or study textbooks. In our push to get kids to succeed, we forget that sometimes they need to just relax and enjoy reading.”

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Given that this is a pretty complicated topic [the Bosnian war], and one that can appear on the Regents, I found the graphic novel unique in that it gave a nice visual overview of the conflict, while also bringing in the human element. Also, during that experience I showed the film “Persepolis,” which is basically a film version of a graphic novel by the same name. It deals with the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and its aftermath.”

“Even fantasy novels,” adds Shekitka, can increase literacy. The key is to find ways to engage kids, so they discover the joys of reading at an early age.”

Grace McCoy is an editor and freelance writer who lives in the mid-Hudson Valley.